El Paso’s food scene has been picking up momentum for the last few years, and 2013 showed no sign of slowing down. El Pasoans witnessed downtown’s restaurant scene balloon; more chains dotted the landscape, while local and sustainable food came to the fore. El Paso’s biggest trends weren’t foods, but rather expansion and downtown. Sadly, we also said goodbye to landmark establishments like Smitty’s BBQ and some newcomers that didn’t even last the year.
2013’s biggest buzzword was downtown revitalization, so it’s no surprise that many businesses opened new or second locations in Central El Paso. Hello Day Café, Sparrow’s, Café Italia, Valentine’s Kitchen, Grocery Gallery, Anson 11, Starbucks, La Feria, Hong Kong Express and Pint & Peanut Public House were newcomers to the downtown scene. Last Thursdays Downtown was so successful that the Last Saturdays Downtown Melt event was created during the summer. A coalition of local establishments and restaurants, partner for a monthly walk featuring specials, live music and after-parties. It’s going to be exciting to see what new businesses and events 2014 will bring with the baseball stadium opening soon.
This humble Mediterranean staple is now practically a requirement in American restaurants and households. While most El Paso restaurants serve the traditional chickpea-based dip as an appetizer, some took creative liberties. Eloise used roasted red beets, Basico Bistro added artichokes and sundried tomato pesto, Tom’s subbed lima beans for southern flair, and Block Table & Tap threw in spiced eggplant, creating a baba ganoush-hummus hybrid.
Burgers go gourmet
Burgers are always in style, but 2013 saw the opening of two new burger joints and a slew of creative toppings. Crave and Hoppy Monk continued to wow diners with their weekly burger features and specials. Palomino Tavern began serving burgers and celebrated December with the 12 days of $2 decadent burgers. Crave Kitchen & Bar’s ownership trio opened Independent Burger at the Montecillo development. Their burgers are made with grass-fed beef, local produce and buns from a Belle Sucre. Create Food Truck, known for its gourmet burgers, set roots with their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Steveo’s Eat & Drink, located on N. Lee Trevino. In 2012, the trendiest burger topper was a fried egg. This year, chorizo was prevalent.
Pizza is yet another staple that’s always in style, but 2013 seemed to be the year of pizza in El Paso. Cafe Italia and Sparrow’s Spirits and Pies opened second locations downtown. The former specializes in Italian pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven, while the latter is the only place in town serving up Chicago deep-dish pies. Little Luna joined the fleet of local food trucks. Chef Ruli opened his second restaurant called Unruli’s Pizza and Pints. Regional craft beers from Texas and New Mexico accompany quirky items like beer can chicken and the Asian-inspired green curry pizza. The Geske group took over Rita’s Bar and Grill to create Nona’s Pizza Bar, where you can buy the whole pie or just the slice. Cicala Italian Pizza opened up at the end of the year at Fort Boulevard.
Tacos get funky
In the sea of Mexican restaurants, tacos aren’t as big in El Paso as they are in Austin, land of the breakfast taco. But this year, more funky taco creations popped up. Tacoholics continued to revel in success and popularity, scoring three “best of” awards from What’s Up, The City and the Vegetarian Society of El Paso. Takorexico broke into the food truck scene with its blend of Korean and Mexican tacos, burritos and bowls. The most unique project had to be the Kosher Tacos Food Truck. Funded by an MCAD grant, the Jewish Federation of El Paso and the B’nai Zion Congregation, the truck combined art, history and food. Diners were able to learn about Crypto-Judaism while enjoying a delicious fusion of Jewish and Mexican cuisines. El Luchador Taqueria & Bar joined the Eastside dining scene, serving up more than 10 varieties of tacos, from classics to duck and rattlesnake. Luchador also has plans of opening a second location downtown.
Honorable mentions: pork belly, kale, quinoa, falafel and craft beer (see: beer dinners at restaurants and “keep the glass” nights)
Cocktail Ingredient of the Year: Cucumber Everything
Cucumber shots, martinis and margaritas were ubiquitous at both restaurants and bars. Some incorporated fresh cucumbers while others used infused liquors. You could find vodka or tequila spiced up with a chile rim, lime and sometimes jalapeños.
- An even bigger emphasis on local, including hyper-local. Two places are already demonstrating what hyper-local is all about. New nonprofit The Mustard Seed Cafe grows its own vegetables, and Hope and Anchor makes some of its cocktails with herbs from the bar’s garden.
- A focus on creating healthy menu options for kids. The City’s Health Department launched the Eat Healthy El Paso campaign and has already worked with several local restaurants to revamp their children’s menus.
- Sandwich upgrades. Maybe 2014 will focus less on over-the-top burgers and place some creative twists on classic sandwiches. Eloise breaks all rules with their vegan Reuben sandwich, ditching the corned beef and Swiss for avocado.
- Dessert hybrids. Cronuts, NYC’s donut-croissant hybrid that became the nation’s biggest 2013 trend, came to El Paso in the form of the Cronot courtesy of Belle Sucre Bakery. Will 2014 bring more decadent hybrids guaranteed to wreck your resolutions?
This article originally appeared in the January 8, 2014 issue of What’s Up Weekly.